One of the most controversial doctrines of the Bible is the absolute sovereignty of God over all things. Theologians and philosophers have been wrestling with how this can be so while people seem to go on making free choices every day that affect the course of history. How can God have a plan, and my actions have any meaning?
What I think is really helpful is to realize that biblically, we have to hold on to both ideas. Scripture is unmistakably clear that all things happen according to the sovereign plan of God. It is also unmistakably clear that people are called to make choices, their choices affect things, and they are ultimately held accountable for the choices they make. It is a tension. Both seemingly opposite ideas must be held at the same time for us to understand the bible. This is not so much a contradiction as it is an “antimony” (which is a $10 word meaning, that two things appear to be contradictory, but aren’t, yet we just don’t have enough understanding to know why). It is similar to how scientists view light. One one hand light behaves as a particle, though sometimes it behaves as a ray. Both are seemingly contradictory, but they must both be held as true, though science doesn’t yet know why. I digress.
One of the best illustrations of this biblical tension is found in the book of Acts, chapter 27. In this chapter, Paul is a prisoner on a ship bound for Rome. The ship encounters a huge storm that lingers for days and days, to the point where the crew throw just about everything, including the ship’s tackle, overboard in their desperate attempt to save the ship. Just as all hope had faded from the crew, Paul stands up and speaks:
For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. (Acts 27:23-25 ESV)
Paul has been given a direct revelation from God that not a single person on the ship will die as a result of this storm and impending wreck. Not everyone has confidence in what Paul says. Shortly after, Paul discovers some of the sailors trying to escape the ship via the lifeboat, on a pretense that they were laying out more anchors for the ship. This is where Paul says something truly remarkable. He gets the attention of the Roman Centurion in charge and tells him:
“Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go. (Acts 27:31-32 ESV)
Wait a minute Paul, I thought you just said that everyone would survive. Now you’re saying everyone will die if these sailors leave the boat? That is exactly what Paul was saying. He knew God’s intended end – saving the lives of everybody on the ship, but he also knew God’s intended means, that the sailors remain on board to navigate the ship. Ultimately, the sailors stayed on the ship, and every single person made it to shore alive, just as God had told Paul.
What is amazing in all this is how the characters involved all make their choices. The sailors try to escape, and the Romans cut away the boats. Shortly after, the Romans want to kill all the prisoners and the Centurion stops them for the sake of Paul. These people were not acting as marionettes; they were acting according to their character in view of their circumstances. However, God’s sovereignty is so magnificent that it uses the independent actions of people to accomplish his express goal. God is never thwarted, and he’s never surprised. His ultimate will is always accomplished right down to the letter.